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The Christmas Coup
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Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Wendy Wippel

Most of us are familiar with Matthew's account of the Magi's arrival in Jerusalem. The Magi asked Herod to point them towards the one “born king of the Jews”. Herod was disturbed at this, we are told, and ''all Jerusalem with him''.  Herod’s angst, we get. But why Jerusalem? One word. History. 

And for this you really need to take the story back a few centuries. Alexander the Great, A-list conqueror and king of the Greek Empire, had succeeded in conquering pretty much the whole known world in 323 B.C (At the tender age, no less, of 32.)  It is recorded by Plutarch that “when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer”.

That's how big his empire was. But Alexander didn’t cry for long, because at the age of 32 he died. (From West Nile virus, apparently, but that’s another story.)

Abruptly, and without an heir. This, as history records, wasn't a good thing.

With Alexander’s death imminent, his four 5-star generals gathered round him and (sensitively, I'm sure) asked the question they all wanted a definitive answer to: to whom goes the Empire? Alexander, deep in delirium, uttered one word: “krastistoi”.

In English, "to the strongest".

This pretty much ensured that his hard-won empire would be split apart and immersed knee-deep in turmoil for the next few centuries. And it was, as each of the four generals (bent on proving once and for all that when Alexander said “the strongest” he had that particular general in mind) set out to conquer everything they hadn’t initially acquired.

This was how the directional kings of Daniel (Kings of the south, north, east and west) came about. Egypt (the king of the south) fell to the general named Ptolemy, Syria (the king of the North) went to the general named Seleucid, Thrace and Asia minor went to the general named Lysimichus (The king of the west) and Macedonia and Greece went to Cassander (the king of the East).

Israel, perennially the political football, got tossed back and forth between Ptolemy and Syria for about two hundred years. (Syria, at that time, included most of the area that had formerly belonged to Persia.) And that brings us up to roughly the time that Herod came on the scene.

Or at least the time his father came on the scene.

Herod's father (Herod the Great) was given rule of Judea by Julius Caesar in 47 BC. By this time a large chunk of the old Persian empire was now an empire of its own called the Parthian empire, and Rome (which now held Egypt) and Parthia (part of the original Syrian holdings given to Seleucid), were still battling it out.

Parthia remained outside of Roman clutches, and had a vested interest in limiting Roman power in Israel and around it. Rome and Parthia maintained an uneasy truce when Herod took charge in Israel in 47 BC.

But then Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. And with that chaos erupted in Rome.

By the time the dust had cleared (42 BC) Herod the Great had installed his son Herod as Tetrach of Galilee. Herod Jr., eventually to become Herod Antipas.) A new, young, and inexperienced Roman ruler in Galilee.

Parthia licked its chops, and within two years Herod Jr. was sent packing, and a rightful Jewish ruler (Antigonus) was, courtesy of Parthian conquest, back on the throne of Jerusalem. Herod went whining back to Rome. He wanted his kingdom back.

Which was fine with Rome. A pompous sycophant of Rome beat a Parthian on the throne any day, and the Roman Senate responded by essentially promoting Herod Jr.,  making him not just Tetrarch of Galilee but the Grand Poobah of all Israel.

They didn't call him the Grand Poobah, however. No. The Roman Senate designated Herod's official new title as (get this) "King of the Jews". And, in fact, (although he had no help from Rome), Herod did, within a couple of years regain rule in Jerusalem. But the whole thing made Herod more than a little bit paranoid. Rather, more than a little bit more paranoid than he was before.

Not that he didn't did have some justification. Herod was from a family who converted to Judaism, who were backed by Rome. The Jews hated the family because; 1) they weren't real Jews, 2) they pretended nonetheless to be Jews and 3) well, they were front men for Rome.

And they hated Herod most of all because he took sin to a whole new level. .

Herod knew that the Jews really, really, hated him, and that, combined with the fact that; 1) he'd lost the throne once, 2) Rome showed no interest in helping him get it back and 3) there were constant other threats to his rule, made him extremely paranoid. So much so that he spent the next 30 years executing wives, sons, and other family members as possible threats to his throne. And that was in response to just internal threats to his rule in Jerusalem.

Enter the magi. Who, don't you know, hailed from Parthia.

Parthia, which stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the border of what is now India, and from the Black Sea in the north to the Persian Gulf in the South. About ten million square miles worth of Parthia, compared to about 20,000 total square miles of Israel.

That's the historical context.

Let's revisit the Matthew story now with the historical and geographical context in mind.

The Magi ride in, emissaries from a kingdom about a thousand times bigger than Herod's (a kingdom, which, BTW, had less than 40 years before had snatched the kingdom of Israel away from his father).

The Magi, who BTW, in Parthia were the committee who selected the next King.

The magi ride in, and they ask Herod, whom the Roman Senate had named "King of the Jews", a single question:

Where is the one "born King of the Jews?"

Herod's worst nightmare. No wonder he was disturbed. And all Jerusalem with him, because it looked, no doubt, like another coup on the horizon.

And really, it was another coup on the horizon. But not the kind they might have expected. Not a coup of the flesh, but of the spirit.

"For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."

The baby Jesus.

O Come Let us Adore Him!

Wippel" href="http://www.omegaletter.com/content/?Bio_Wendy_page">About Wendy Wippel

Last week: Wippel" href="http://www.omegaletter.com/articles/articles.asp?ArticleID=7730">What Child is This?

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